Theatre and radio drama scripts look very similar in the page. They’re both dialogue-driven, with descriptions of location, action, and character intention. But in the white spaces between the spoken words lies a world of difference. With my play Model Village on tour with New Perspectives Theatre, I’m thinking again about the forms and boundaries of drama.
Bad audio drama
I started my career as a theatre playwright who hated radio drama. To me it all sounded like this:
MARJORY -Martin, you look tired.
Martin groans as he sits down.
MARTIN -Yes, Marjory. I am tired.
MARJORY -Terrible business about that thing we both knew happened last week, but need to talk about again now, in case the audience missed the previous episode.
MARTIN -Yes, it was terrible.
MARJORY -Let’s have tea. I’ll just get a cup out the cupboard.
Sound of cup being taken out a cupboard.
I heard stiff characters, clumsy exposition, ubiquitous BBC voices, and I didn’t believe a breath of it. So when was introduced to radio producer Karen Rose (Sweet Talk Productions) in a pub, I told her exactly what I thought. Not a recommended career move. But to her enormous credit she said, “write me something better”. I’ve been trying to do that ever since. So, what have I learned?
Good audio drama is more like film than theatre.
In audio drama location is much more than a sound-effect. It influences how people speak, behave, and interact, and how the listener feels. It’s almost a character in itself. Karen Rose often records on location, rather than in a studio. We use a boom mic and move with the actors through real places across rooftops, up ladders, in a toilet, on a horse, or hanging off a boat on the English Channel. You can hear the reality. (Although sometimes reality doesn’t sound how you think.)
When I visited Bekonscot Model Village I found an amazing location, unique sound, and a story about big people vs small people. But could it be audio? How would you get a sense of two scales, the shifting point of view? Would people sound like Micky Mouse? Or the adults in Charlie Brown? I only knew it couldn’t be a cartoon.
Audio drama has a more filmic structure than most theatre, with shorter scenes building the story arc. In theatre you only really see that in farce. It is also physically blocked more like a film, with close attention to point-of-view. If one character leaves a room, does the microphone travel with the person leaving or stay with the person left behind? That’s two completely different stories.
With Model Village the final ten minutes feel more like film than theatre or radio… the pace of cutting between scenes, characters and scales is absurdly demanding. But is it farce? Not exactly…
What can theatre do that radio can’t?
A live performance with a specific audience on a particular night is different from any other performance, the shared experience subtly changed by who is in the room. Audio drama can’t achieve that. The closest I’ve got was a listen-in-the-dark experience of the horror Ring in a crypt in Bristol. It was unnerving, but not truly a collective experience as we were all plugged into individual headphones.
Location work is not restricted to radio and film. My first professional theatre show was performed in a country house garden, the first show by leading immersive theatre company Gridiron. I co-created Chariot of Light (Working Party Glasgow) a devised show on a steam railway, in a nature reserve overlooking Bo’ness power station. With site-specific shows the story isn’t just set in the location, it evolves from it. It can also immerse the audience, invite interaction, as in Punchdrunk productions like Burnt City. And Model Village.
With my other (third?) hat on, I design gamified, branching narratives for digital media. Model Village has interactivity wired into it because that’s how I think. The audience can choose the ending. They can join in with songs, contribute to our suggestion boxes or even take a small role in the show. It’s not a gimmick. We are travelling to small venues on a rural tour and want to give each community a bigger, more connected experience than a drop-in show.
Can audio drama do this kind of interactivity? Not easily. Drive In Deco (Part Exchange Theatre Co) is the closest I’ve come. It was inspired by a beautiful Deco building marooned by Plymouth’s city planning. The building was the star and we told her story through a projections onto the facade, live performance, and an audio drama broadcast into people’s car radios. Car lights and horns were used interactively. It was bonkers, beautiful and a technical nightmare!
What can radio do that theatre can’t?
Radio can use narration like no other medium. But good narration doesn’t ‘tell the story’. Narrators can be active characters or a whisper in your ear. They can be unreliable, poetic, or pedantic. A character can move fluidly between in-scene drama and narration. These things are hard to achieve on stage. The best example I’ve seen recently is Complicite’s Drive Your Plough.
Location and narration happen between the listener’s ears. Binaural takes this one step further: imagine 3D surround-sound that puts you inside another character’s body, traveling through their world. A fantastic example of this is Almost Tangible’s Macbeth.
Theatre can integrate verbatim text and documentary interviews, but radio does it seamlessly. It can, with the right producer (Karen Rose, again) incorporate improvisation. The Last Breath was the story of a concept artist who wants to capture his last breath as an installation. It was completely improvised with non-actors: the artist, and his friends and family. No one died.
My most recent broadcast End of Transmission was the story of HIV told by the virus, crossing continents and centuries. The drama featured stories from people living with HIV in all their variety. An in-body /non-human character, an unreliable narrator and documentary wove through drama. Theatre simply can’t do that.
Audio or Theatre?
Rules are made to be broken, technology and imagination can take creativity anywhere. But having said Model Villagecouldn’t be audio drama, sound is essential to its peformance. It features a podcast, a livestream, and a running narrative of train announcements. Audio drama and theatre scripts may look the same, but the white spaces are waiting to escape the page, the studio, and the stage… and get between your ears.
Anita Sullivan is an award-winning drama writer and all her 60+ plays have been staged or broadcast. www.anitasullivan.co.uk